On Friday morning, 37 people died in a fire at the Oksochi Psychiatric Hospital in the village of Luka, an old wood and concrete structure warehousing 60 mentally ill men, 137 miles southeast of St. Petersburg. In April, 38 mental patients died in a similar fire which broke out at an institution near Moscow, unable to jump from the windows because of the iron bars placed over them. The iron bars over the windows in Moscow, we would undoubtedly be told, were “for the patients’ own good,” were we to inquire about them. The men in Luka who were chained to their beds when the fire broke out were also tethered “for their own protection,” we would be informed, were we foolish enough to ask.
Everything we do is for peoples’ own protection, so the story line goes, in this world of ours whose main controlling motive is nothing other than love and more love. People are sometimes medicated until they pass out unconscious, because it is the hope of the staff that those patients will enjoy sweet dreams. In state institutions in the U.S., doctors often know little of what actually goes on day-to-day on the wards they are in charge of. They write their prescriptions and then go into their offices and close the doors, or they go home. Then low-wage workers, who are often full of anger and frustration about the conditions of their own lives, take over the running of the wards. Sometimes they are extremely kind to the people under their care. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes the people under their care become vulnerable targets who can be used to act out all of that pain and frustration on. Everybody needs not only money, but some sense of control over the environment in which they struggle, and just like amoeba are at the bottom of the world’s food chain, mental patients are at the bottom of the power chain. Everybody else but the mentally ill has a say about what is done with the mentally ill. After all, they are mentally ill, right? Their diagnosis invalidates their right to choose, since by definition, their thinking is disordered, and therefore, so is their choice-making capacity. It is a lose-lose situation of powerlessness. The iron bars across the windows of almost all mental institutions are symbolic of that powerlessness, which sadly, is no symptom of any disease, but rather, a symptom of its treatment.
From that point of view, perhaps the patients who died in the fire at Oksochi were the lucky ones. When I think about death by fire, it brings me back to the days of the Vietnam War when I sat in front of my television watching Buddhist nuns immolate themselves in protest against the bloodshed. They were killing themselves in protest, but also perhaps, as a means of escape from the immense misery surrounding them on all sides. Perhaps they were also setting themselves on fire as an expression of rage against their powerlessness. There was nothing else that they could do, but at least they gained some attention, and thereby, some power, in that awful, desperate way.
Russia is a nation known for its power struggles and also for its ruthlessness in those struggles and for its corruption. The end of Communist Party domination there did not necessary mean the birth of a nation where everybody played the game fair and square. That was no more the case in Czarist Russia than it was in the Soviet Union, and it is well-known that it is not the case now. The United States is not particularly known as a land of ruthless power struggles, but that does not mean that they do not exist. Just ask any Native American whose people were moved off their land at gunpoint, barely avoiding genocide, about good ole’ fair and square, apple pie in the sky America. Just because Obama and Putin look different, that doesn’t mean they are different. They are one and the same in this case, but merely dressed up in different disguises.
A powerless person is in very big trouble, whether he resides in Moscow or St. Petersburg or St. Louis or New York. If you are a powerless person, you had better find some way to change that and cut yourself in for a piece of the action, because if you don’t care about you, nobody else will either. It is sad, but true.
Written By: Bird Trungma